How to Hire

Hiring people is simple. Not easy, but simple.

There's a wonderful book The Triumph of the Airheads (and the retreat from common sense) whose basic premise is that the world is run by stupid people: a special kind of stupid, the post-modernist cleverness of the liberal twit, the adulation of the dumb. (Even if you can find the book second-hand it will cost you a six-figure sum: it is a rare classic)

The author, Shelley Gare, a Sydney journo, reserves special mention for HR people.

One moment there was a pleasant, greying man in a cardigan in personnel, dealing efficiently with every thing from pay to... departures... so that we, the workers, could get on with our jobs... The next minute there were huge carpeted departments of Human Resources people, mostly young women with a slightly menacing air... brusquely telling us how to do our jobs. Interestingly, in my experience few of them ever seem to know quite how to do their own.

One of HR's favourite areas of interference is of course hiring. We can't be trusted to hire staff without psychometric testing (scientifically shown to be woo), and other HR specialties to justify their own jobs.

I liked this article (thanks Macanta) Close The Skills Gap By Throwing Out Job Descriptions (another HR speciality) for the way it tries to simplify the process of filling jobs. But I'd go further - I think hiring is even simpler. Hire people who pass these simple tests:

1) What have they done before?

Many years ago I was privileged to be trained by CA in the Selecting Winners methodology. Best management training I ever had. (Actually it was some of the only management training I ever had: CA was a sink-or-swim culture). Everyone who hires should get this training (unsolicited testimonial).

But you won't. Your boss is too tight and you don't have time to improve the most important aspect of your role. So here's the basic premise: the only reliable way to predict what someone will do in the future is to look at what they have done in the past. Never mind what they think or feel, what they promise they will do. Drill down mercilessly on what they have actually delivered in the past and what role they personally played in that. Then hire the ones who deliver.

2) Do they fit?

Cultural fit is essential. How many times have you looked at a new arrival at a company and thought "they won't last". Make sure their potential future peers get to meet them and express an opinion. Hire people who are going to fit in.

The most brilliant job interview I ever had was a nice cup of tea with an elderly pearl-draped lady who was the Personnel manager for Progeni, a wildly progressive NZ company. We chatted for nearly an hour and barely spoke of the company or the job. it was surreal. Only after I walked out did I realise she knew far more about the real me than any other interviewer. The only other interview I had before I got the Progeni job was to walk me round the building chatting to some of the staff. She was gooood.

And make sure the #1 assessment after their trial employment period is "How are they fitting in?" (You do have trial employment periods right? You don't? I bet you got married straight after a one-night stand.)

You won't get productivity out of somebody who isn't comfortable working in your organisation, working for you, working with the team.

3) Do they have the requisite knowledge?

This isn't a biggie. Any smart organisation will hire the right people and teach them what they need to know - it is much cheaper than hiring people for their knowledge. "Right people" is not defined by experience or skills or certifications. Especially not experience. One day this IT industry will stop hiring people just because they've worked in networks for ten years. That's like saying we are hiring them because they are not dead.

Still, in the unlikely event that the other criteria are met and you still have multiple candidates then hire the one with knowledge closest to what you want them to do.

Sure, it is hard to teach a non-programmer how to build an app. Good ability as a developer may be a basic pre-requisite. But don't limit it to Ruby or PHP or COBOL or whatever. Smart people transfer their skills quickly to new contexts (in this example: new languages). And never rule out teaching a smart eager person from scratch. Get the right people then invest in helping them to get the job done: it is cheaper in the long run than carrying a useless or unhappy person and then eventually getting rid of them.

This criterion applies to hiring a permanent member of a team. It is different when hiring a contractor for a project or other situations where you don't have the luxury of time to train them. In that case, go back to criterion #1: what have they delivered that was like what you need?

Find people

So what to put in the job description when you advertise? Don't. Advertise what the job is and see who applies.

Better still, don't advertise. Use LinkedIn and other networks to see who you almost-know who looks interesting. Make the recruiters earn their pay by approaching them. Yes I'm a big fan of head-hunting: to limit your search to only those currently out of work is to settle for third best. (Second best = those in work. Best = those who don't need to work, you can't get them).

The very worst thing you can do is to allow HR to advertise widely for a defined profile, then cull through the huge number of candidates on your behalf, using air-headed scientific nonsense and bland ordinariness to come up with a shortlist of rubbish for you.

Work hard

One last thought: When I said "hiring is simpler" I mean simpler in theory. In practice we need to work harder at hiring than most of us currently do. Giving someone a job is easy. Working with them is harder and getting rid of them almost impossible. So all managers should work harder at hiring than at any other aspect of their job. Suffer the pain of an unfilled position. Maintain stamina. Do the hard yards. Keep looking until you find the right person.

Simple really.

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